Collaboration is dead, long live collaboration!

Following a session he moderated at Photonics West on biophotonics funding, Mark Hutchinson at the University of Adelaide argues that a more integrated, transdisciplinary research environment is needed in biophotonics

Collaboration is dead. Or at least the way we used to do collaboration is dying. Why? Gone are the days when it was okay to have a specialist in one laboratory ‘collaborate’ on a project with a research specialist in another laboratory with periods of separate parallel or sequential activity. Then, when one or the other of the parties is ready to talk they come together for sporadic meetings to share their results.

What did this research environment foster? I believe this has created greater and greater specialisation, and marginalisation of researchers from the vital connections to their neighbouring scientific disciplines. It did not always foster a mutual understanding or appreciation for their neighbour’s scientific methodology or language. Critically, such approaches also failed to produce the entrepreneurial spirit and well-versed project leader who can translate the research into a meaningful commercial outcome. This is not a problem that only faces biophotonics; it is an issue across multiple physical and medical scientific disciplines. So what are we going to do about it? Well, the funding agencies are ready to support our changing research environments, and address the resourcing needs of large transdisciplinary international research teams.

During the SPIE Photonics West meeting, we had an opportunity to discuss the current funding avenues open to address these specific issues as we move from a specialist-only research community, into true transdisciplinary research at the boundaries of scientific disciplines. As a beacon of such activity, we were also able to celebrate the international launch of our new AU$40 million Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) (www.cnbp.org.au).

The Australian Research Council (www.arc.gov.au) administer an innovative seven-year Centres of Excellence funding scheme, whose goals are to create scientific discoveries that are greater than the sum of their parts. Why does this scheme enable this? I believe this success stems from investment in large (greater than AU$20 million), extended (greater than five years) programmes of research that facilitates scientists from disparate fields to come together, to learn from one another and develop the next generation of scientists. And of course, these new scientists are cutting their teeth in a purely transdisciplinary environment, where they don’t necessarily identify themselves as a physicist, chemist or neuroscientist; rather they are part of a heterogeneously skilled team that is striving to solve a common scientific problem.

Critically, these Centres of Excellence teams are comprised of people who are equipped with the skills to facilitate the engaged translation of experimental ideas, through to tangible commercialisation outcomes. Where there are resource expertise or knowledge gaps, these Centres have enough inbuilt flexibility that they can rapidly adapt to the current demands.

The model within the CNBP is not to create the science in-house and then find commercial partners at the end game. Instead, we want to engage early, develop projects, increase knowledge and nurture scientific wisdom together. As such, a single project will have a long-lived legacy of experience that persists in the accelerated advancement of the careers of those who engaged in the project.

But this is just one example of how the Australian Government is addressing the new era of scientific endeavour. Fortunately, there are other international funding bodies that also share this lofty goal, and we were fortunate enough to hear from two of them at the SPIE Photonics West gathering, the National Science Foundation (www.nsf.gov) and the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov). Of specific focus on the night were the projects that enable and facilitate international transdisciplinary research.

Of special note from the NSF were opportunities such as: Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide; East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes; International Research Experience for Students, and others. Similarly NIH has some fantastic opportunities that can be found at grants.nih.gov.

Where to from here? Probably back to grant writing. But first, perhaps it is time to ask yourself if you are ‘only collaborating’, and if you are, then could your research move up to a higher level through a more integrated scientific relationship with your colleagues?

About the author

Professor Mark Hutchinson is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Australian Research Fellow and is the director of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Nanoscale Biophotonics. He is also a professor within the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Adelaide.